When President Trump announced Thursday that he was canceling his visit to the United Kingdom next month to open the new U.S. Embassy in London, he sounded less like the leader of the world’s most powerful country and more like the real estate developer he once was.
On Twitter, he complained that the Obama administration (it was actually George W. Bush’s) had traded an embassy located in one of the British capital’s top districts, Mayfair, for a new one in “an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”
Trump was referring to the London borough of Wandsworth, south of the River Thames, which is now home to a massive development known as Nine Elms. Once a logistical hub for distributing fruit and vegetables, among other things, Nine Elms today is dotted with cranes and includes multimillion-dollar waterfront apartments.
“I thought he got it wrong,” said Ravi Govindia, leader of the Wandsworth Council, referring to Trump’s implicit criticism of the area.
That may not be the only thing Trump got wrong. The embassy, in fact, cost about $1 billion, according to U.S. government officials.
In an extraordinary statement Friday, the embassy effectively defended itself against the president’s criticisms. A spokesman said the new embassy was not financed through taxpayer dollars but through a property swap after the old embassy in Mayfair became too rundown and could no longer provide adequate security.
“The new Embassy in Nine Elms is one of the most secure, hi-tech, and environmentally-friendly embassies the United States has ever built,” the statement said. “We are strongly committed in the Special Relationship between our two countries and we are confident the new Embassy will provide the necessary platform to continue our cooperation.”
Besides the embassy, the Nine Elms development is anchored by the old Battersea Power station, a red-brick colossus with towering white smokestacks that was famously featured along with a floating pig on the cover of the 1977 Pink Floyd album Animals. After sitting empty for decades, the building — which also served as a shooting location for the 2008 Batman movie, The Dark Knight — will become home to luxury apartments and Apple’s U.K. headquarters.
“As a real estate person … I think [President Trump] would see that there is always an opportunity in regenerating and redeveloping a site,” said Govindia. “It may not look great to start with, but it is what you do with it that makes it great and that’s where the opportunities and profit are.”
It’s not just government boosters who have nice things to say about the area. Residents are optimistic about its future as well.
Saina Behnejad moved into her mother’s apartment in Nine Elms last year. The 25-year-old magazine editor says when her mother bought here in the early 2000s, the area was gray and quiet, without tall buildings or many people. Now, she says, Nine Elms — which has two Tube stops coming — feels more vibrant.
Behnejad says people in the neighborhood weren’t offended by Trump’s comments.
“We just find it very amusing,” she said, standing in front of the embassy. “I just think he probably doesn’t know anything about London at all. It’s constantly evolving and changing.”
Not everyone is enamored with Nine Elms. Some find the glass and steel architecture soulless. Since the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, new luxury property in London has seen significant price declines. Last year, Bloomberg reported that sales and falling values in Nine Elms drove some developers to sell units in bulk at a discount.
Jonathan Scobie, a real estate agent who sells property at Embassy Gardens, an apartment complex near the embassy, was excited for Trump’s planned visit. He is also a big fan of the president and his blunt style.
“He speaks his mind and I think that’s what the world needs,” said Scobie, standing next to some decrepit houseboats beneath a luxury apartment block, which illustrates the area’s evolving gentrification.
Scobie doesn’t agree with Trump’s characterization of Nine Elms, but he says the attention generated by his tweet won’t hurt.
“It’s only going to help us sell our property down here,” said Scobie, “which is obviously great.”